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US Military Recruits Children: "America's Army" Videogame Violates International Law

by Michael B. Reagan

In May of 2002, the United States Army invaded E3, the annual video game convention held in Los Angeles. At the city's Convention Center, young game enthusiasts mixed with camouflaged soldiers, Humvees and a small tank parked near the entrance. Thundering helicopter sound effects drew the curious to the Army's interactive display, where a giant video screen flashed the words "Empower yourself. Defend America ... You will be a soldier."(1)The Army was unveiling its latest recruitment tool, the "America's Army" video game, free to download online or pick up at a recruiting station, and now available for purchase on the Xbox, PlayStation, cell phones and Gameboy game consoles. Since its release, the "game" has gone on to attain enormous popularity with over 30,000 players everyday, more than nine million registered users, and version 3.0 set for launch in September. "America's Army" simulates the Army experience, immersing players in basic training before they can go on to play specialized combat roles. Most of the gameplay takes place in cyberspace where virtual Mideast cities, hospitals and oil rigs serve as backdrops for players to obliterate each other. As a "first person shooter," the game allows players to "see what a soldier sees" in real combat situations - peek around corners, take fine aim, chose weapons that replicate those actually used by the US Army.

For the game's commercial developers, realism is one its strongest selling points. Console version programmers were shipped to military training facilities in Wyoming, where they ran boot camp obstacle courses, fired weapons at the shooting range and got whisked around on helicopters. Back at hip, safe San Francisco Bay Area game companies, Army weapons specialists worked with developers to ensure aim, fire, sound and reload functions for all of the game's weapons were as close to the real thing as possible. The Army also ensured that players learn real weapons skills such as breath control and the reload time for a M4 carbine. And in order to edge closer to the Army's goal of "realism" and "authenticity," several of the game's missions are based on actual combat experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the training simulators and firing ranges are modeled on the real life versions at Ft. Benning, Ft. Lewis and Ft. Polk. In a 2005 press release, Ubisoft, the multimillion-dollar publisher of the console version of the game, wrote that "America's Army" is the "deepest and most realistic military game ever to hit consoles," hoping that it gave players a "realistic, action-packed, military experience."(2)

But behind the fun and games is an attempt, in the words of a military booklet on "America's Army," "to build a game for Army strategic communication in support of recruiting." The Army spent $6 million to develop the game at the Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute (MOVES) before handing it over to private companies for adaptation to the console formats in 2004. As the name implies, the MOVES Institute is the military center for creating virtual training environments and simulators. A MOVES Institute booklet proclaims a later version of the game, "America's Army: Special Forces," was developed specifically to increase the number of Army Special Forces recruits. "The Department of Defense want[ed] to double the number of Special Forces Soldiers, so essential did they prove in Afghanistan and northern Iraq; consequently, orders ... trickled down the chain of command and found application in the current release of 'America's Army.'"(3)

Like so many aspects of contemporary military operations, the development of later versions of the game has been handed over to corporations for private profit. Some of the biggest game companies have worked on the console, arcade and cell phone versions of "America's Army." Ubisoft, the world's seventh largest video game company, is the game's exclusive producer and has recently publicized record profits for the first quarter of 2008. Ubisoft worked closely with San Francisco based Secret Level to develop the 2005 Xbox version. Global VR, in San Jose, California, is preparing the release of the arcade version, and Gameloft programmed a version available for download to cell phones. Getting in on the action are other more traditional military contractors, such as Digital Consulting Services (DSC), a multimillion-dollar military tech company based in Newbury Park, California. Among DCS's other projects are the Encore II Information Technology Solution for the innocuous sounding Global Information Grid, "an all encompassing communications project for the Department of Defense," worth $13 billion over five years. Or the Navy's Seaport-Enhanced - a $100 billion multicontract program to integrate Navy warfare operations. The Army worked closely with these and other companies to produce "America's Army," the first and only officially licensed Army game. It is this partnership and the close attention to technical detail that the Army and game companies claim gives "America's Army" its realistic quality. As Col. Casey Wardynski, director of the US Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis (OEMA) and director of the game project proclaims, "America's Army" is "the most authentic console game about soldiering in the US Army."(4)

Yet, far from providing realism, "America's Army" offers a sanitized version of war to propagandize youth on the benefits of an Army career and prepare them for the battlefield. In the game, soldiers are not massacred in bloody fire typical of most video games, or for that matter, real combat. When hit, bullet wounds resemble puffs of red smoke, and players can take up to four hits before being killed. To further protect youth, concerned parents can turn on optional controls that sanitize the violence even more - shots produce no blood whatsoever and dead soldiers just sit down. This presentation of war contrasts to the much more grisly reality unfolding every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, like a June suicide attack on the Fallujah City Council in which three Marines, two interpreters and 20 Iraqis, including young children, were killed. Photos by American photojournalist Zoriah depict a horror scene in a small courtyard, dismembered body parts - ears, hands and pieces of skull - spot the ground; one Marine's head looks smeared into the pavement. Zoriah writes of the scene, "There are dying people strewn around like limp dolls along with lifeless bodies of all ages. People are screaming and crying and running as if they have something important to do, only they can't figure out what that important thing could possibly be ... people are literally frantic removing the dead, as if their pace may bring some of them back." It is this violent, realistic quality of combat that has been excised from the game.(5)

Another ploy in the Army's "realism" playbook is what the Army calls "America's Army's Real Heroes." On the "America's Army" web site, visitors can explore the stories of eight combat veterans who received silver or bronze stars, purple hearts, or other awards. Among them is Sgt. Tommy Rieman, an Iraq veteran who used his body to shield his gunner from incoming fire, miraculously surviving bullet wounds to the chest and shoulder. He was selected to be a "Real Hero" and media celebrity for Army recruitment not solely for his courage, but also because he survived his experience. Those who have made the "ultimate sacrifice" are unlikely to be chosen at all, like 22-year-old Specialist William L. McMillan, who was killed on July 8 when his vehicle was destroyed by a roadside bomb. Or 35-year-old Sgt. Steven Chevalier, of Flint, Michigan, father of two, who joined the Army after high school in 1991 because he couldn't find work in Flint. On July 9, in the midst of his third tour in Iraq, Sergeant Chevalier was destroyed by a grenade attack in Samarra. Other Army nonheroes include those who have taken the courageous step of refusing orders in an illegal and immoral war, like Lt. Erin Watada or members of 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment who refused patrol orders in Adhamiya, Iraq.

What the game's "realism" is attempting to do is to mask the violent reality of combat, and military experience in general, for very specific purposes. At a minimum, the Army hopes "America's Army" will act as "strategic communication" to expose "kids who are college bound and technologically savvy" to positive messaging about the Army. Phase one of the propaganda effort is to expose children to "Army values" and make service look as attractive as possible. The next phase is direct recruiting. According to Colonel Wardynski, who originally thought up selling the Army to children through video games, "a well executed game would put the Army within the immediate decision-making environment of young Americans. It would thereby increase the likelihood that these Americans would include Soldiering in their set of career alternatives." To make the connection between the game and recruitment explicit, the "America's Army" web site links directly to the Army's recruitment page. And gamers can explore a virtual recruitment center through the "America's Army Real Heroes" program. Local recruiters also use the game to draw in high school children for recruitment opportunities. Recruiters stage area tournaments with free pizza and sodas; winners receive Xbox game consoles, free copies of "America's Army" and iPods. Game centers are also set up at state fairs and public festivals with replica Humvees and .50 caliber machine guns, where children as young as 13 can test out the life-sized equipment.(6)

When players walk into Army sponsored tournaments, the government knows more about them then they may suppose. The game records players' data and statistics in a massive database called Andromeda, which records every move a player makes and links the information to their screen name. With this information tracking system, gameplay serves as a military aptitude tester, tracking overall kills, kills per hour, a player's virtual career path, and other statistics. According to Colonel Wardynski, players who play for a long time and do extremely well may "just get an e-mail seeing if [they'd] like any additional information on the Army." The "America's Army" web site, however, is quick to point out that the Army respects players' privacy. The Army claims that player information is not linked to a person's real world identity unless that person volunteers their identity to a recruiter. But it is not clear that recruiters have to give any sort of discloser that a voluntary relinquishing of one's name is also an invitation to a player's statistical information. Answering seemingly innocent questions from recruiters in "America's Army" chat rooms or at state fairs about one's screen name may divulge personal information without intending to.(7)

Beyond its recruitment goals, the game serves as a training device for both military tactics and weapons, and to condition players for battlefield operations. To this end, "America's Army" game assignments are designed to simulate real world battlefield missions. For example in one mission, "Special Forces fight alongside Indigenous Forces they have trained. For this mission, [players] must rescue and escort a wounded resistance leader who's escaped to a neutral hospital for treatment - or hinder the escape of a wounded enemy courier, depending which side you're on." Missions like this shadow real world military actions such as the November 2004 seizure of a Fallujah hospital, a blatant violation of international law. The Army justified the war crime by explaining the hospital was furthering enemy propaganda. Other missions designed to acclimate players to warfare take place on an offshore oil rig or reenact the "Blackhawk Down" scenario. The oil rig game environment mimics possible combat deployments like to the new military installation being built by the Navy on the Khawr al Amaya Oil Terminal in the Persian Gulf. Interestingly, in these mission environments every gun-carrying character found online has a real person behind it. Yet, all players perceive themselves as American Forces while their avatars may be represented as black masked "terrorists" to their opponents.(8)

If this weren't enough, the Army has designed weapons systems and training simulators based on "America's Army" simulations and gameplay and incorporated them into the game. Players are organized into groups of Army units to learn to think, act and work together, a key component of basic infantry training. With a system of honor points that can help or hinder a virtual career, players are rewarded for their teamwork and strategic thinking, and discouraged from acting like a lone Rambo. Weapons training programs are also developed from the game or incorporated into "America's Army." These include the Live Fire Virtual Targetry for Urban Combat, in which boot camp recruits fire live ammunition at huge screens with "America's Army" simulations projected onto it. Additionally, training software for the Common Remotely Operated Weapons Station, a remote control vehicle with automatic weapons, was incorporated into the 2.7 version of "America's Army." The Army has also used the game to test new weapons. The Army's weapons research laboratory, the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC), uses "America's Army" simulators to create virtual weapons testing grounds that are so lifelike ARDEC can "try out a new weapons system before any metal is cut." In "America's Army" one can play and undergo real-world military training at the same time.(9)

Most troubling of all, these recruitment and training techniques are targeted at children. Apart from sanitizing the violence of war, the Army toned down the gore in the game to get a Teen rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the equivalent of a PG rating on movies, so that children as young as 13 could play "America's Army." Chris Chambers, the game project's deputy director explains that "we have a teen rating that allows 13-year-olds to play, and in order to maintain that rating we have to adhere to certain standards. We want to reach young people to show them what the Army does ... We can't reach them if we are over the top with violence and other aspects of war that might not be appropriate. It's a choice we made to be able to reach the audience we want."(10)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has found that Army use of the game, and its recruiting practice in general, violate international law. In May, the ACLU published a report that found the armed services "regularly target children under 17 for military recruitment. Department of Defense instruction to recruiters, the US military's collection of information of hundreds of thousands of 16-year-olds, and military training corps for children as young as 11 reveal that students are targeted for recruitment as early as possible. By exposing children under 17 to military recruitment, the United States military violates the Optional Protocol." The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, ratified by the Senate in December 2002, protects the rights of children under 16 from military recruitment and deployment to war. The US subsequently entered a binding declaration that raised the minimum age to 17, meaning any recruitment activity targeted at those under 17 years old is not allowed in the United States. The ACLU report goes on to highlight the role of "America's Army," saying the Army uses the game to "attract young potential recruits ... train them to use weapons, and engage in virtual combat and other military missions," adding that the game "explicitly targets boys 13 and older." In June, at the 48th session of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Committee noted US violations of the Protocol and urged the United States to "ensure that its policy and practice on deployment is consistent with the provisions of the Protocol."(11)

Four years after the game was introduced at the 2002 Los Angles E3, and half way around the world in Mosul, Iraq, "America's Army" was having an effect. Sgt. Sinque Swales had just fired his .50 caliber machine gun at so-called insurgents for only the second time. "It felt like I was in a big video game," he said. "It didn't even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!" While Sergeant Swales found game training conditioned him for combat situations, other soldiers report "America's Army" played a direct role in guiding them to the military. Pvt. Doug Stanbro told The Christian Science Monitor in a 2006 interview that he "never really thought about the military at all before I started playing this game." An informal Army study of the same year showed that 4 out of 100 new recruits in Ft. Benning, Georgia, credit "America's Army" as the primary factor in convincing them to join the military. Sixty percent of those recruits surveyed said they played the game more than five times a week. And a 2004 Army survey found that nearly a third of young Americans aged 16 to 24 had some contact with the game in the previous six months.(12)

"America's Army" is not a game; it is a recruitment and training tool that the Army uses in violation of international law. While soldiers and civilians continue to kill and die in Iraq and Afghanistan, private corporations like Ubisoft reap handsome profits from the Army's project to train and recruit children. Military game developers are very open about this role, as Colonel Wardynski proudly proclaims in article after article, "We want kids to come into the Army and feel like they've already been there." In this sense, "America's Army" is more than a recruiting tool; it is an attempt to shift public perceptions about the Army and a conscious effort to militarize youth and video game culture. Indeed, the Army has been largely successful, so long as we accept sophisticated propaganda, recruitment and training programs like "America's Army" as simply games and entertainment. In a statement that could apply to any of the military propaganda programs for youth, including popular movies like "Transformers" and "Iron Man," Wardynski says, "If you don't get in there and engage them early in life about what they're going to do with their lives, when it comes time for them to choose, you're in a fallback position." With the need for fresh recruits at an all-time high due to popular opposition to the murderous and illegal wars, the Army is hoping their game will keep them from stepping into a fallback recruiting position. According to Colonel Wardynski, "today's Soldiers are gamers," and, we might add, the Army is hoping to make the statement true in the converse as well. When this means the militarization and recruitment of our children, we should all take special notice.(13)

Michael B. Reagan is an activist and graduate student in the San Francisco Bay Area. He can be reached at micatron@berkeley.edu

(1) Knight Ridder Tribune News Service: "Army Game to Draft Virtual Soldiers," May 23, 2002, pg. 1

(2) Business Wire: "US Army and Ubisoft Join Force in Unprecedented Agreement to Deploy 'America's Army' Brand Worldwide," April 14, 2004; Business Wire: "US Army and Ubisoft Bring 'America's Army: Rise of a Soldier' to Video Game Consoles; The Most Authentic Military Console Game Ever Created Ships to Retail Stores Today," Press Release, November 15, 2005.

(3) The United States Army and the Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute: "'America's Army' PC Game Vision and Realization: A Look at the Artistry, Technique, and Impact of the United States Army's Groundbreaking Tool for Strategic Communication," January, 2004, pg. 22, henceforth, "MOVES Booklet"; MOVES Booklet, pg. 37.

(4) DCS web site: http://www.webdcs.com/contracts.php?id=encoreII; Business Wire: "US Army and Ubisoft Bring 'America's Army: Rise of a Soldier' to Video Game Consoles; The Most Authentic Military Console Game Ever Created Ships to Retail Stores Today," Press Release, November 15, 2005.

(5) Zoriah Photojournalist: "Suicide Bombing in Anbar - Eye Witness Account - Iraq War Photographer Diary - Graphic Images," posted June 26, 2008, http://www.zoriah.net/blog/suicide-bombing-in-anbar-.html

(6) Carrie Kirby: "The advertising game: Adopting the latest thing in advertising, Army out to do some computer recruiting," San Francisco Chronicle, August 5, 2002, Sec. E 1; MOVES Booklet 7; a Wisconsin counter-recruitment group was recently successful in booting recruiters armed with the video game from "Summerfest" before the Army pressured festival organizers to let them back in if they restricted game to those 17 or older.

(7) Gary Webb: "The Killing Game," Newsreivew.com, November 4, 2004, http://www.newsreview.com/sacramento/Content?oid=23529

(8) MOVES Booklet 28.

(9) Jason Dobson: "Army Game Project's Frank Blackwell on 'America's Army,'" Serious Game Source, September 2006; Webb: "The Killing Game."

(10) Seth Schiesel: "On Maneuvers with the Army's Game Squad," The New York Times, February 17, 2005, Sec. G1

(11) American Civil Liberties Union US Violations of Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict: Sons of Misfortune: Abusive US Military Recruitment and Failure to Protect Child Soldiers, May 23, 2008; United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, Forty-eight Session: "Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict," June 6, 2008.

(12) Jose Antonio Vargas: "Virtual reality prepares US soldiers for real war; Young warriors say video shooter games helped hone skills," The Wall Street Journal Europe, February 15, 2006; Patrik Jonsson: "Enjoy the video game? Then join the Army," The Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 2006.

(13) The Washington Post: "'America's Army' video game doubles as military recruiter; Officials hope online multiplayer adventure will encourage teens to volunteer of service," May 30, 2005, Sec. A13; Joan Ryan: "Army's war game recruits kids," San Francisco Chronicle, September 23, 2004, Sec. B1; Eric Gwinn: "Uncle Sam wants you - for 'America's Army,'" The Chicago Tribune, November 7, 2003.

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